One of the top activities on most tourist’s to-do list while in Tokyo is a Tsukiji fish market tour. It is free to wander around the famous market, and even to peek in on the operations going on inside, where packing and wholesaling of the daily catch takes place, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for tourists to do on their own.
For us, it was important to find a good tour guide who could show us around the area, explain to us the names and usages of all the traditional foods we’d never seen before, and act as a translator so we could eat our way around the market with ease. That’s where Japan Wonder Travel comes in. Their Tokyo Foodrinks Tour @Tsukiji Market is the perfect answer to how you’re going to experience the most of this incredible market.
The 3.5-hour tour starts at 8:30am at the main gate of Tsukiji Honganji-Temple. It’s a small group tour, often with no more than 4 guests, to make it easier to get around in the busy market. We were lucky enough to have our lovely guide, Tae, all to ourselves for our tour.
A little bit about Tsukiji market
Tsukiji Market has been around in some form since the early 1600s. It was destroyed in a fire in the late 1600s and moved to another area. After a major earthquake in 1926 that again destroyed the market, it was rebuilt in Tsukiji and began operations where it currently resides in 1935.
If you go into the market, you’ll see for yourself that the buildings are aging and are in need of some major upgrading, thus a new, state-of-the-art location has been constructed nearby, and operations are slated to move there in November 2016.
The market is divided into two parts, the inner market and the outer market. The inner market is made up of mostly wholesalers – over 1,600 of them – and seven auction houses. The main attraction for visitors in the inner market is the tuna auction that takes place at 5:30am most mornings (except Sundays and holidays. I’ve also heard it’s closed on some Wednesdays). Only licensed bidders can participate in the auction, but tourists can get in to witness the action. You better be prepared though. Only 120 tickets are given out on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The outer market is made up of mostly retail vendors like retail suppliers, food shops and restaurants. You can find all manner of traditional Japanese foods at the stalls. They are selling everything from tiny dried sardines to green tea, Japanese kitchen knives (I wanted to stop and buy a knife so badly! Have to come back another time to do that), dried bonita, and just about every type of fish you can imagine. You could probably wander through the narrow aisles of vendors for a few hours before you’ve come to the end.
Eating our way around the Outer Market
From the very moment we entered the outer market and laid our eyes on all the food that stretched out before us, we were mesmerized and overly excited for the tasty bites we would try along the way. Our guide expertly navigated us through the crowds, stopping at many stall that offered samples of products we’d never tried before, like tiny dried sardines that are eaten as a snack, bonita flakes that had just been freshly shaved, and green-tea-coated beans. It was all new to us. We even tried some teriyaki grasshoppers!
Tomagoyaki (Japanese omelet)
One of the specialties in Japan that we saw often around the market and at sushi restaurants is called tomagoyaki, which is a Japanese omelet that is made into several layers in a special pan. We tried both a savory and sweet version. If you like eggs, you’ll definitely love this omelet. At the market, it was served on a stick for easy eating while walking!
Satsuma-Age (Fried fish cakes)
We stopped at a stand that was selling fried fish cakes. They had a choice of scallop, squid, shrimp, or squid and octopus. Nick had scallop. I had squid and octopus. Mine was delicious. The batter is made with flour and seasonings, then mixed with the fish and deep fried. It makes a handy little snack that can be reheated whenever you’re ready to eat it.
We could tell we were approaching a very popular vendor from the crowd that had formed around it. This is the best way to find good things to eat. It might seem like a better idea to avoid the crowd, but you’ll likely be missing out on something special. This stand was selling fresh oysters, sea urchin and a few other things right from their stall.
One of my favorite things to see at the market was the dried Katsuobushi block. Katsuobushi is smoked, dried and fermented bonito fish that is used in all kinds of dishes in Japan, especially dashi broth. We see it most often already shaved and sold in a packet as bonita flakes. A few months ago, our supper club chose bonita flakes as an ingredient and that was how we were first introduced to okonomiyaki and chou hi from Japan, by our supper club friends, Mike and Ann-Li.
At the end of our tour, we ventured a little further outside the market to a stand up sushi restaurant to sample the freshest sushi you can get anywhere in the world. We passed a few of the incredibly popular sushi stands that are in the outer market, where dozens of people had been standing in line for what was likely hours, and I just felt bad for the gullibility of those people.
If you think about it for a moment, the exact same fish is being bought and served in every sushi restaurant within walking distance of the market. The only possible variable remaining is the skill of the sushi chef, which basically comes down to knife skills. Is is really possible that the cut of a knife is worth waiting additional hours for? I’ll leave that up to you, but for us, it seemed pretty silly to wait in a line when there was amazing sushi waiting for us just a few blocks away.
The vast amount of choices for sushi is overwhelming. We wanted to try everything! There were probably at least a hundred sushi restaurants within a few block radius of Tsukiji and each one has an extensive menu featuring dozens of types of fish. We were spoiled for choices.
Check out our full guide to eating sushi in Japan.
Tips for visiting Tsukiji Fish Market
Here are some important pointers for visiting the market:
- Book a tour with Japan Wonder Travel. You won’t regret it!
- Wear appropriate shoes. Something comfortable for all the walking, and no open toed shoes are allowed in the market.
- Don’t bother getting up early for the tuna auction. There’s really no reason to get there before 8:30am or so. The inner market doesn’t open to the public until 9 or 10am (check the schedule).
- Always ask the vendors for permission before taking photos. Be polite.
- Have a sense of adventure and try things!
Watch Our Video!
Keeping in mind that we’re really not very good videographers (okay, we’re really NOT videographers at all), here is some footage that we took during our tour of the market to give a brief and somewhat shaky/wobbly idea of what it’s like.
A huge thank you to Japan Wonder Travel and our guide Tae for providing us with this fantastic insight into Tsujiki Fish Market.
Don’t want to do the planning yourself? Try a guided tour
If you’ve been wanting to plan a trip to Japan, but don’t know where to start, we recommend looking into a guided tour with Japan and More. They offer anywhere from 7-21 day trips to discover all the best parts of Japan with a very small group, and the planning is taken care of for you.
PRO TIP: If you are planning to visit more places in Japan (like a round trip from Osaka to Tokyo), I highly recommend taking a look at the Japan Railpass. If you’ve done any research on traveling in Japan, you’ve already found out how expensive it can be. The railpass can only be purchased by tourists (before you arrive), and it will save you a lot of money over buying separate tickets, plus save you the hassle of buying the tickets each time.
(As always, all opinions expressed in this article are our own.)